This is BrainLog, a blog by Dan Sanderson. Older entries, from October 1999 through September 2010, are preserved for posterity, but are no longer maintained. See the front page and newer entries.

December 2004 Archives

December 29, 2004

The first NewsRadio DVD box set finally has a release date listed at Amazon: May 24, 2005.

Yet another OS X app list, with a corresponding thread on MacSlash. Mostly boring, but a few things I hadn't seen before:

  • NetFlix Freak, a full-featured NetFlix application that lets you search and browse the NetFlix catalog, and manipulate your queue, faster than with NF's web site. $15.
  • Vektor, a chess program with some nice annotation and output features. $19.
  • Enigmo, a 3D puzzle game. $20.
  • iPick, a color picker. Free.
  • Unison Usenet newsreader. $25.
  • xScope, screen tools for designers. $15.
  • Cocktail, a GUI frontend for a bunch of system administrative facilities. $15.
  • skEdit, a text editor for web developers. $20.
  • Smultron, a text editor. Open source, written for Mac OS X natively (Cocoa). Free.

Delicious Library ($40) and TextMate ($50) have both had a couple of months to do post-1.0 bugfix releases, they might be worth a second look.

Instiki, the Ruby-based Wiki, seems popular for one feature in particular: it is its own web server. Installing Instiki requires no set-up or configuration of web server (or database) software, you just run it and it goes. This makes it especially useful for running on your own desktop: download and run, and you have a private browser-based wiki for your personal notes.

This feature of Instiki is also its biggest detriment. Instiki must open its own port to behave as a web server, and on anything but your own computer (such as web hosting), you do not have permission to open a new port. Even if I had administrator privileges on a server, I would think twice about dedicating a port to a wiki. Perhaps this is less of a barrier for corporate intranets, a sweet spot for wiki use. For my purposes, I need a personal wiki, but I need it publicly available.

Still my wiki of choice, Kwiki, the almost-as-easy-to-install Perl-based wiki, is up to verison 0.36 (2004-12-18). After installing the Perl modules from CPAN, it's similarly one command to install a new wiki in an existing Apache document directory. The plugin platform is maturing steadily, though it's still pre-1.0, as are a bunch of the newer plugins.

December 28, 2004

I enjoyed this article on Rosegarden as it approaches v1.0.

Rosegarden is a fully featured audio and music sequencing and score authoring package for Linux. I had high hopes for it a couple of years ago, but at the time, I couldn't get it to stay up for more than a minute or so. A poor experience with music on Linux in general was the final kicker that made me a Mac person. With newer Linux distros and Rosegarden reaching 1.0, I wonder if I'll regret having spent big bucks on commercial solutions. (Would I ever install Linux on my Powerbook? !!!)

OmniOutliner 3 Professional has gone public beta. All the best stuff from newer competing outliner/organizers, but at The Omni Group's level of quality. OO 2 users can upgrade to OO 3 Pro for $50, or to OO 3 Plain for $20. The public beta is free; the beta software will expire at the end of next January.

Simultaneously, I'm looking at DevonThink, another Mac OS X life organizer with fancy search features. DT makes me realize that my lazy troubles with using a plain outliner for life notes could be greatly alleviated with a separate content pane. I think OmniOutliner Pro 3 can do something like this, but I can't quite get it to work right. (Curio may also be worth a look in this regard.) DT does cross-note links, Wiki-style and otherwise, a compelling feature. Quite disappointingly, DT's "outliner" is anything but, simply "groups" but with checkboxes; I don't think the DT developers know what an outliner is. If DT actually had an outline document type, I'd be sold. DevonThink is $40.

Merlin's thread on DevonThink has useful comments and suggestions. Ted Goranson is discussing outliners and life tools. A complaint heard here, which I share, is DevonThink's opaque database. My first thought after seeing these tools is to integrate them with my 'net accessible wiki, which appears too difficult to attempt with DT, at least not without AppleScript or serious hacking.

Some commenters in both threads seem to think DT is only really useful for large collections of notes. Some even say they use both DT and VoodooPad in a complementary fashion, which might be worth considering. VP boasts an open database format, making VP-to-wiki a possibility.

One commenter on Merlin's site suggests forgoing an organizer and simply using Mac OS X Finder, with files and folders. The operating system provides search (even search of PDFs), and every file type is supported by definition. While he has a point, especially with the upcoming Mac OS X 10.4 Spotlight feature (which the DevonThink folks are already trying to rebut), my first thoughts are obvious: I need speed and easy at-a-glance access, which means one click instead of two, and no waiting for apps to open. Seems like the real point is, maybe these ought to be OS extensions instead of self-contained organizer apps.

Practical mod_perl, the book, has been released by O'Reilly & Associates under a Creative Commons license (Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0).

The book covers mod_perl 1.3, still in widespread use. Naturally, I'm trying to figure out how to use mod_perl 2.0, and am hoping to see a good book on the subject sometime soon.

December 22, 2004

Google Scholar.

See also your local university's publicly accessible research indexes.

A sample chapter from the book Setting Up a Secure Apache 2 Server contains quite a bit of useful information for getting started with Apache and SSL. Of course, never implement a security strategy you don't completely understand. Apache's own documentation includes a fantastic introduction to the concepts, but no straightforward steps for putting together a working configuration, so the SAMS sample chapter fills in this gap. Makes for a good ad for the book, too.

Patently Silly, a blog of poems about various patents. Not satire, just cute.

HOWTO Use hdparm to improve IDE device performance (in Linux).

This has been on my Linux to-do list for a long time, because it shows up in many How To Make Linux Faster documents, as if hdparm were a secret knock that allows only True Linux Geeks to get proper hard drive performance. It turns out that newer Linuxes, you know, the ones that are good at hardware auto-detection, are also good at turning on the optimal hard drive operation modes. Still worth a look, though, just to see a command that dumps statistics about hard drives. (hdparm -Tt /dev/hda benchmarks the drive, for instance.)

December 21, 2004

The chapter on PC power supplies from Upgrading and Repairing PCs. I'm in awe of this book, and consider buying it every time I have a PC hardware problem, but I usually recoil when I see how much information is presented and how little of it I actually need at a given moment.1 See, I'm old. And lazy. (And not the productive kind of lazy, either, the lazy kind.2)

It is useful to know that the interactions between the power supply and the motherboard are actually quite sophisticated, it's not just an AC/DC converter. My personal server shut itself off in a blink while I was using it last week, and I'm confident that the problem was not a hardware failure, but a configuration issue: too many hard drives, not enough watts. It was confusing because this configuration worked "fine" for several years at the old apartment, and only in the new basement did it decide it couldn't work under these conditions. And by "fine," I mean every once in a while it'd dump "Argh! Kernel error! I can't—uh, I, uh, OK, I guess it's OK now" to my shell, and everything would seem fine, and I wouldn't have enough information to figure out what went wrong.3 I suppose shutting itself off is preferable, since it convinces me to address the issue.

My new 1.21 jigawatt power supply from PC Power and Cooling went in easily, but when I hit the turn-on-please button, nothing happened. No beeps, no fans, no hard drives, nothing. Sadly, putting the old supply in produced the same effect! Oh no! I must have stupidly come within five feet of the motherboard without simultaneously being in contact with a copper wire that leads to the Earth's core! I'm actually not sure what I did, but it was enough to inspire me to get a new mobo, which meant re-installing Linux from the bottom up because I don't have the patience to figure out how to set up new hardware by hand.4 A few days of setting up software passed and I decided it was time to hook up the remaining hard drives and close the box. Turn on please: fans go on, hard drives spin up, but no beeps, no video, nothing else.

This new motherboard is supposed to tell me what's wrong during boot up. That is, it's supposed to speak English words out of a little speaker: "Pardon me, sir, but I do believe there is a screwdriver lying across my capacitor leads." But it was mute. Shut down, go to sleep, wake up, shower, go to work, come home, sulk in front of the TV, try again, this time with only one hard drive. Works. Do I add the second drive? And risk the heartbreak?

I try to be thorough, but these are not proper hardware troubleshooting techniques. I lack the time, the tools and the spare parts required to say for sure whether the new power supply is not fully functional, whether I damaged the motherboard, or whether other pieces of this puzzle are failing and causing odd problems. I've introduced two new major pieces to solve one problem that, for all I know, wasn't a power problem. The PS was my first guess, and it appears to be common knowledge that a 235W supply isn't enough for multiple hard drives. Of course, I could have added up the wattage use for each component in the box to verify the load. But I didn't. I'd rather buy a new PS than add up some numbers, and I'd rather buy a new motherboard than... I dunno...

I'm old and getting older. Maybe I should resign myself to that fact and just pay younger men to fix it for me.

1 Amazon user reviews for Upgrading and Repairing PCs blame the text for including too much useless information, especially text for legacy hardware from previous editions of the book.

2 Not that there's a productive kind of lazy when it comes to hardware. S'why I'm a software guy.

3 Random seeming behavior such as CPU complaints like these are often caused by an overheated processor, usually from a failing CPU fan or poor airflow through the box. In this case, the mobo reported an ambient temp of 65°F and a CPU temp of 135°F, comfortably below the 140°F (60°C) running temp for the AMD Athlon.

4 Newer Linuxes are great at auto-detecting hardware, but only during installation. Switch its boxers for briefs and it has to learn how to go to the bathroom all over again.

A Singular Christmas: Christmas music generated by a computer forced to listen to a bunch of Christmas music. Eigenradio.

December 20, 2004

Interactive fiction author Adam Cadre reviews Twisty Little Passages, the book on interactive fiction by Nick Montfort (MIT Press; ob Amazon link). See also the Brass Lantern review, and the Slashdot review is good too.

Tangentially related: Via Nick's blog, Greg Lord's analysis of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel (originally an assignment for this class project from this professor). Mouse over the map for details of each node, and be sure to see the glossary and the essay.

What corporate America can't build: a sentence. Every time I consider teaching a writing course for my employer (in which I'm pretty sure there's interest), I stop and try to consider the level at which such a presentation would be most useful. Then I worry that the most I could do in an hour is spelling and punctuation. Then I drop the idea.

I'm exaggerating a bit. The comprehensibility of e-mail in my workplace is remarkably high, and I think my fellow employees would mostly be interested in higher level writing concepts. But not having taught a writing course before, I worry about the nature of a typical introductory composition course, and what it would do to my soul if I had to teach one.

How to Create a REST Protocol.

December 17, 2004

TeXML, an XML vocabulary for TeX.

DB2LaTeX, XSL Stylesheets for converting DocBook to LaTeX.

Building a 3D Engine in Perl, part 1.

Renowned tech essayist Joel Spolsky is editing a collection of the best software essays for 2004, and asked his readers for nominations. Many of the suggestions are worth reading. Whether they're worth anthologizing as the best of a genre, I'm not so sure. There are a bunch of great essays in the list, but only a few of them were actually written in the last year.

Several of renowned tech essayist, veteran tech writer and Lisp expert Paul Graham's recent writes were nominated, and since I can't seem to get far enough away from language evangelism these days, I've been re-reading his Lisp-is-the-bestest (and-to-a-lesser-extent-Python, in-as-much-as-it's-like-Lisp) stuff. The part where he says that Lisp macros are a defining feature links to Paul's 1993 book, On Lisp, which is now available as a free download (minus several diagrams lost to time and ether).

Re: Lisp goodness, see also responses and rebuttals to that Lisp/language essay, which clarifies some stuff and makes additional good points, including some more good points on Python, and links to Paul Prescod's response on Python and Peter Norvig's "Python for Lisp Programmers".

December 16, 2004

TechBooksForFree.com, a catalog of free technical books online. The site itself is a bit crazy, but the links are decent.

Cross-Language Remoting with mod_perlservice, Apache- and Perl-based remote procedure calls with Perl, C and Flash client libraries.

Gamespot's World of Warcraft review.

December 15, 2004

Howtoons are one-page cartoons showing 5-to-15 year-old kids "How To" build things. Each illustrated episode is a stand-alone fun adventure accessible to all, including the pre-literate. Our Howtoons are designed to encourage children to be active participants in discovering the world through Play-that-Matters -- fun, creative, and inventive -- and to rely a lot less on mass-consumable entertainment.

The site also features videos of the educational projects in action.

I stumbled across an IMDB page for a Sweeney Todd movie due out next year because the screenplay is by John Logan, who wrote the new Scorsese-directed Howard Hughes bio-pic, The Aviator. This Sweeney project is being directed by Sam Mendes, of American Beauty fame and otherwise well known as a stage director.

What Stanley Didn't Say. A former assistant to Stanley Kubrick investigates the perpetrator of a fraudulent Kubrick interview.

Google Suggest. Google, you've just blown my mind.

December 13, 2004

The True Story of Audion, the once popular and now retired music player for the Mac. Another great "Steve Jobs offered me money" story.

Jon Udell has an inspiring article about screen videos, making animated video of activity on a computer screen. Jon hopes we are close to making screen videos as easy as screen capture, the ability to take a still picture of a window or your entire desktop, which many operating systems include as a built-in feature.

He has since dubbed this kind of video "screencasting."

Modifying Stickies, using the Mac OS X developer tools (Interface Builder) to add UI elements to the Stickies application, including a scrollbar. Whooee.

plasticbag reviews Delicious Library.

December 10, 2004

Profanity Adventures, a nostalgic look at typing swear words into text adventure games from the 1980's.

Natural programming languages and environments. Applying modern user interface ideas to programming languages.

The von Neumann Architecture of Computer Systems.

December 9, 2004

HR3291, The Intellectual Property Protection Act, may be rushed through Congress. I haven't read the text [PDF] in detail yet, but Wired is reporting that this is an amalgamation of a bunch of other copyright legislation, including text that forbids punishes taking a camcorder into a movie theater with three years of jail time (and indemnifies movie theaters from damages caused by detaining suspects), and charges the Department of Justice with persuing Internet file traders.

Wired is comparing this bill to another bill that prohibits skipping advertisements. Sec 212 indemnifies people skipping content in private, including the use of devices designed to make such a task easy, such as for censorship of offensive material—but analysts say the explicit provisioning of this right, one which we already have without this bill, effectively restricts our rights to that provisioned in this text.

Not mentioned in the Wired article or other analysis: Title IV: The National Film Preservation Act of 2004 amends the National Film Preservation Acts of 1992 and 1996 by broadening the language to encourage the Librarian to extend the "preservation plan" to include media storage format technology advances, increasing the size of the Film Preservation Board, the number of appointed members-at-large, and the size of quorum, adjusts the wording of the travel reimbursement to board members— and, via a little note at the end, cuts the budget from $250,000 to $200,000 a year. Hardly the biggest scandal of the bill, but one I care about, and one that will go unreported.

These and others are cases of crafty formulation of a bill's text, which I only assume is to fool legislators into voting for it, or perhaps to allow legislators to vote for it against the interests of their constituents with reduced political impact.

While reading these bills that amend the U.S. code, it is often essential to look at the text it is amending to make sense of it. Search the United States Code.

Check summaries and statuses of this and other legislation at PublicKnowledge.org.

Design Observer on The Incredibles.

Musicians, listeners and staff of All Songs Considered try to name the perfect song. All songs chosen are available for listening streamed from the website. Via jjg.

By the way: Welcome back jjg! While some of us are still recovering from our fifth blogoversary parties, jjg is returning to blogging after a five-year absence.

Amazon.com exclusive: The Criterion Collection Holiday 2004 Gift Set. Every Criterion DVD still in print, a total of 241 movies, in one big set. $4,999.

3 people recommended Police Academy - The Complete Collection instead of The Criterion Collection Holiday 2004 Gift Set (Amazon.com Exclusive)

(Recommendation rescinded since I saw it last, apparently.)

December 8, 2004

Apple has been telling developers that the new Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger release will be a big boon for developers. They probably say that to developers with every release, but in fact, the handful of whizbang out-of-the-box features most publicly touted for Tiger are in many respects feature platforms for third-party apps.

I'm guessing many Mac users upgrade to every major release out of loyalty, but I was starting to wonder if some folks may stick with 10.3 because the bundled Dashboard widgets aren't worth $150 on their own. Instead, it looks like people are going to need to upgrade to do all the cool stuff the rest of us will be doing with everything.

I should be listening to L.A. Theater Works' The Play's The Thing more often. KUOW airs the program, which features full-length performances (readings, I assume) of plays in front of a live audience, on Friday nights. L.A.'s KPCC keeps streamed audio files of each week's play (though on their own schedule) available on their website for a week after it airs. Previous weeks' plays have the first 15 minutes online. As good as the occasional Broadway play on PBS's Great Performances, better (and cheaper!) for its radio-ness.

When I wrote this, I was listening to Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple," starring Nathan Lane (Oscar) and David Paymer (Felix), with Dan Castelleneta and Yeardley Smith.

Klezmer Scores, PDFs of full-score and part-wise sheet music for fully orchestrated klezmer music. Many of the included scores include MP3s of recordings of the works.

I found this while trying to figure out how to do D.S. al Coda in Lilypond 2.2. "Bolter Bulgar" includes an example, but the Lilypond source is not on the site. I found an answer deep in some Lilypond notes somwhere, involving setting the text manually (within the notes section):


\markup{ \musicglyph #"scripts-segno" }

\markup{ \bold "To Coda" " " \raise #1.1 \musicglyph #"scripts-coda" }

\markup{ \bold "D.S. al Coda" }

\markup{ \bold "Coda" " " \raise #1.1 \musicglyph #"scripts-coda" }

Dunno if this is easier in newer versions of Lilypond...

December 7, 2004

In general, I'm digging our Humax DVD recorder TiVo. In several important respects, it's a step down from a DirecTV TiVo where the TiVo and the receiver are the same unit (not to mention two tuners), but we wanted the DVD burner (not available with DirecTV TiVos). I especially like having a TiVo interface for a DVD player, not to mention having one less box (our old DVD player) in our living room.

No doubt this is an extremely common gripe, but I gotta: Having a TiVo control a cable box using an "IR blaster"—an infrared light on a wire that you tape to the front of your cable box so the TiVo can pretend it's a remote control—is dumb. If it worked, I'd just think it's silly, but when it works, it's slow (you get to watch it press 0, 0, 5, Enter), and in our case, it doesn't work very well. We've already missed scheduled recordings because the TiVo was unable to convince the cable box to change the channel, and TiVo doesn't know any better, it just assumes it's on the new channel and records away. This TiVo Community Forum article does a pretty good job of summarizing issues with TiVos and cable boxes, ours in particular. My take away so far: try other codes (see the article for suggestions). Also, make sure your blaster is positioned properly: use a flashlight to find the actual IR receptor behind the tinted plastic, and put the IR blaster right in front of it. Some people even recommend building a little paper hood over the blaster and receptor, to prevent other IR in the room from confusing it.

TiVos include a serial cable that can control some models of cable box directly, so you can avoid the IR blaster thing. From what I've read, it appears a cable box's serial port actually controls an IR blaster embedded just inside the box (!), though I bet it's still better than something you stick on there yourself.

Ultimately, if I can't get this to work, I may downgrade from digital cable to just basic cable, so TiVo can use its built-in tuner and not have to worry about recording the wrong channel. No premium channels (don't need 'em), no digital picture (and I can't say our digital cable looks any better than basic cable—actually makes me miss DirecTV a bit), no fancy Comcast features like On-Demand (but who needs OD when you have TiVo?). But we'd get accurate recordings, and have even fewer boxes to worry about, too.

December 6, 2004

While I had previously considered wiring our new old house for ethernet, after consulting with an electrician I decided to postpone the effort. We simply lack enough access to the walls to do it as clean as I would like it.

Thankfully, wireless reception throughout the house is excellent. Wifi should have been my first choice, all things considered. I got a new Airport Extreme base station, an AE card for L's G4 iMac, and a D-Link DWL-122 USB wireless "adapter" for the new TiVo. And I installed a phone jack in the basement, all by myself (damned easy).

We already had an older Airport, but I sprung for the Extreme (802.11g) model in the hopes of getting extra-fast local network access and the ability to connect a USB printer to the wireless network. Sadly, Brother printers don't play well with the Airport Extreme (or is it the other way around?). The iFelix unofficial Airport Extreme and Express Printer Compatibility List doesn't mention the older HL-1240 explicitly, but the HL-1440 is known to have problems. Brother suggests pretending it's an IP printer (not a Rendezvous printer), but that doesn't appear to work. This page recommends downgrading the Airport firmware, which makes me sad.

I otherwise very much love my Brother HL-1240. Brother was one of the first to make inexpensive laser printers (Amazon sells the 1440 for $89 after rebate), and I've never had a problem until now. Given the unusual nature of the AE printer compatibility list, I blame Apple, not Brother, but I really don't know anything about it. I hope Apple is willing to fix the problem.

P.S. If you're looking to get an Airport card for your "G4 iMacs" (aka "flat-screen", or lamp-style), take note: Older models only take the original 802.11b (non-Extreme) Airport cards, and not the new 802.11g (Extreme) cards. You know you have a new one if a) you have a 1GHz processor, and/or b) you have USB 2.0 ports. The older cards are no longer sold by Apple, but some stores still have them at a premium price. I ordered one from an eBay seller after a "genius" at the Apple Store neglected to mention criterion a), convincing me we had an older iMac, so if you need one right now, I can hook you up for cheaper than retail.

P.P.S. Prior to ordering the Airport card, I tried using the D-Link DWL-122 USB wifi adapter with the iMac. The v1.0 drivers didn't work at all, and the latest drivers from the D-Link website worked but crashed the computer every few minutes. Isolated circumstance, maybe, but it wasn't fun. (OS X 10.3.6.)

December 1, 2004

OK, next time, I'm hiring professional movers. After about a month of constantly loading, driving, and unloading a borrowed van, all of our stuff is finally at the house. Next comes the organizing, but I don't even want to think about that right now.

I noted a bunch of stuff to blog in the last couple of weeks, but it's all old now. Maybe later.